The Origins Of New Year (1822)

The different years of Romulus, Numa, and Julius Caasar, among the Romans, with the successive improvements in computing their time adopted by that people are generally known. The first month of the year of Romulus, the latter consisting of ten months, was consecrated to Mars, answering to our March. Numa added two other months, making twelve, namely: January, so called from the God Janus, and February, from Februo, to purify ; because the feasts of the purification were celebrated in that month.

It may not be irrelevant to observe that, seven hundred years before Christ, the foundation of the Purification, or Candlemas, of the Roman Catholic and English churches may be traced; thus shewing how the heathen customs were transmuted in the early ages into the simple rites of Christianity, and what gross corruptions took place in the Christian worship, which have been continued to our day. Julius Ca;sar effected the last improvement in the Roman year, wm’ch afterwards differed nothing from that now in use. New Year’s day, or, according to the Roman phraseology, the

first of the Kalends of January, was remarkable for the compliments people paid to each other, which were literally the same as those now in use, that have descended to us from our ancient intercourse with them. On New Year’s day the Agonalia, or festival in honour of Janus, took place. Presents were sent round among friends with wishes of health and prosperity, and such presents were called Strenie. Clerks and freedmen also sent presents to their patrons. Gifts were presented by the people to their governors: this custom was as ancient as the time of Romulus. The Roman knights gave a new year’s gift annually to Augustus Caesar and to succeeding emperors. Nero established games on new year’s day, which were at first kept privately in his palacegardens in honour of the shaving of his beard, but afterwards they were made public, and celebrated by succeeding emperors with great splendour, under the name of Juvenalia. The magistrates of Rome came into office on new year’s day, and the artisans began any new work which they had to perform, but they only worked a little upon it for good fortune, and then laid it aside. No one in Rome was allowed to take fire out of his neighbour’s house on that day, nor any iron utensil, nor was any thing to be lent.*

New Year’s day as the fete of the Circumcision is only to be traced among Christians to the year 1090; it is likely, therefore, that this was one of the many observances foisted into Christianity by the popes, and councils of that period, and for which there is not a remote authority in the Scriptures. The first day of the year was kept as a festival among Christians as far back as the year 487. TheyV used to run about masked, until forbidden to do so, in the manner of the heathens during the Saturnalia. At a later period, the Saxons observed the day with great jollity and revelling, and the waes-heil bowl was always circulated briskly. Waes-heil, or drinc-heil,t were originally their modes of drinking health on public occasions. Gifts were always presented at this season. The new year’s gift in France is even now, in some parts, called Guy-l’an-neuf. In England, on new year’s eve the wassail bowl J was carried from door to door by the youth of both sexes, filled with a composition of ale, sugar, toast, and roasted crabs or apples, asking presents in return. It has been stated, however, that the presents were not given until the following day. It has also been supposed by some, that wassailing was a religious rite derived from the worship of an idol named Heil, once adored at Cerne, in Dorsetshire; but this appears to have nothing but fable for its foundation. If it had any thing connected with religion about it, the worship of Bacchus must have been the object. Mr. Brand has published a song of six stanzas, in his ” Popular Antiquities,” which is sung to this day by the lower classes in Gloucestershire, clearly shewing the traditional meaning of the word. The following is the first stanza :

« Selden says that bene vos, bene te, bene me, bene nostram ctiain Stephanium, in Plautus, and other writers of antiquity, agrees nearly with the custom of drinking healths in later days.

t For much on this subject see Brand’s Popular Antiquities.

; See Vol. II. page 613.

” Wassail! Wassail! all over the town—

Our toast is white and our ale it is brown,

Our bowl it is made of a maplin tree

We be good fellows all,—I drink to thee ! &c. &rc.

This shews that the popular sense of the terra agrees with Milton’s in Comus, which means revelling.—

” I should be loath

To meet the rudeness and swill’d insolence

Of such late wassailers.”

Shakspeare also makes Hamlet say:—

” The king doth wake to-night, and takes his rouse,

Keeps wassel and the swaggering upspring reels :

And as he drains his drafts of Rhenish down,

The kettle drum and trumpet thus bray out

The triumph of his pledge.”

With us, new year’s gifts were formerly presented by the husband to the wife, the father to the child, or the master to the servant; and, curious enough, we seem to have reversed the Roman custom, which was generally from the inferior to the superior. The gifts were not confined to particular things, though some were preferred to others, and appear to have been offerings peculiar to the season, and made more for ceremony’s sake, than for a token of remembrance, or for value. An orange stuck full of cloves was one of this class. Eggs dyed of different colours were also sent as presents, particularly red ones ; which was the favourite colour of the Celtic nations. It is remarkable that a similar custom prevailed in Persia at the beginning of the last century, when they celebrated the commencement of their solar year by a feast, at which they gave each other coloured eggs. Verses in the shape of compliment or congratulation were formerly sent as new year’s gifts, and were, consequently, plenty enough during the season. An old tract, treating of this custom, says, ” The poets get mightyly that day (new year’s day) by their pamphlets, for a hundred elaborate lines shall be lesse esteemed then in London than a hundred of Wansflcet oysters at Cambridge.”

The English nobility formerly sent the king a purse of gold, as a new year’s gift; a custom derived, without doubt, from that of the Roman knights, to the emperors before-mentioned. Among our records of singular presents made on that day, is the gift of a Testament, by bishop Latimer, to king Henry VIII. splendidly bound, and having marked upon it, ” Fornicatores ct adulteros judicavit Dominus.” It is wonderful that the good bishop, who certainly did not rank with many of later times in courtliness, but thus fearlessly pursued the duties of his calling, should have been reserved for the vengeance of the bloody bigot Mary, after such an act of faithfulness to that tyrant. The gift formerly presented on the opening of the new year by the tenantry to their lord, was a capon. Pins were, also, on their first invention, deemed acceptable new year’s gifts to the fair sex.

The Law Society of Lincoln’s-Inn, as they were formerly great observers of Christmas*, so they were accustomed to greet new year’s-day with mirth and good fellowship. The seat of the King of Christmas in the hall was filled by his marshal, and the master of the revels supplied the vacant seat of the marshal thus elevated to the throne of the sovereign. In truth, the gentlemen of Lincoln’s-Inn seem to have lived ” righte merrily” in ancient times, and never to have missed any excuse for a wassailing of which they could avail themselves.

Thus the custom of greeting the new year with mirth and revelling appears to have been general among nations ancient and modern. It arose, perhaps, from the conviction, that as life was environed with hazards and hung on a slender thread, they were fortunate to have gotten safely over another year. Like all impressions that are productive of similar effects, these were the result of sudden and pleasant impulses. There was only one other way in which they could have regarded the season, but that was far too reflective and philosophic for untutored minds. They never, in consequence, thought of the rapid tide of accumulating seasons hurrying them to an unknown existence and to the state of ” cold obstruction.” Though the lapse of every year brings us all nearer to the close of ” life’s fitful fever,” we still exemplify Young’s line—

” All men think all men mortal but themselves;”

and in consequence of this only a few among the great mass of mankind observe the noiseless foot of time stealing by them, and robbing them of a portion of life at every step. But we shall be told, like Hamlet, if we consider the subject farther in this light, ” that it were to consider too curiously to consider so.”

There is great pleasnre sometimes in following the multitude, and taking its unstudied views of things. The new season seems naturally to bring with it anticipations of good fortune, and thus it heightens the deceptions which reconcile us to life, or rather increase our love of it. In truth, the entrance of the new year has peculiar charms:—the lengthening days, the earth about to rise from the cheerless sleep of winter, the exhilarating feelings at the approach of Spring, the incipient song of birds, the increasing sunshine, are all calculated to repress sad thoughts by the delicious sensations they inspire. It is the character of human nature to fling itself confidently upon the future, and even to ” leap amid its darkness.” The past is beyond our power, the present is become the past ere we can reflect upon it: man, therefore, has only the future for the haven, in which he can anchor his little bark of expectations, and he looks to it with delight, always flattering himself that there he shall find good holding-ground, and see

” The seas for ever calm, the skies for ever bright.”

The greetings and wine-cups that usher in the new year are not wholly empty ceremonies. The division of time entered upon has a thousand hopes on its wings. We are dependant upon it for many things which we have to achieve, or which we promise ourselves will be achieved for us. Our approaching crops will be more plentiful than those of the last year, because the season has been fine, and we have bestowed additional pains in sowing them (not that this literally would

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be of much advantage to individuals in some nations during the present topsy-turvy days), our South Sea whalers will turn out well, we shall pay off a mortgage, or come into a fortune : these anticipations heighten the flavour of the new year’s wine, and give a heartiness to its greetings. But it is in early youth, when our anticipations are not of so precarious a nature, when the past leaves few recollections of joy or sorrow, that our pictures of the new year display the most vivid colouring. Reason lies inert at that Spring season of life—the future teems with views of pleasure, which, in many instances, we cannot miss. We then arose early from our beds, with

” No thought of ills to come

Nor cares beyond to-day.”

The compliments of the season were repeated, now nearly gone out of fashion ; we received our new year’s gifts with a pleasure, the remembrance of which even now warms us, and we gazed with eyes of ardent affection on the parents and friends that were the donors. As we add another year or two of youth, we rejoice that the next new year will place us beyond the limits of parental authority, little reflecting how small a reason we have for pleasure at this. The lover hails the new era as that in which he shall consummate his happiness in the arms of a mistress—the heiress as the time when she shall escape the watchful eye of her guardian—and the maid when she shall become the wife and the mother; in short, to all in whom the reign of passion has not been succeeded by that of lukewarmness and reason, the new year is a season of

” Vernal delight and joy.”

Happy period of youth ! the most delightful paradise of the visionary or the poet would be wanting in its attractions, if thou didst not reign in it perennially.

In the decline of manhood and in age we have comparatively little to do with vivid anticipations : then is the past period of life all we can draw upon : then we recal images coloured with the dark hues of a Rembrandt, and make reflections on a new year’s day very dissimilar from those of youth and the multitude. We can then think of and love only old things, and make an unsatisfying meal upon retrospections. Then revellings at the new year are like meat to the sick man, regarded without desire, and swallowed without taste or appetite. Then memory may call up the sensations with which we once greeted it—the parental gift—the mother’s smile, on presenting us the promised toy— the paternal commendation at our past progress in learning—the glee and honest undamped vivacity, to which we gave way—the joyous swell of our little hearts at the postponement of the bed hour, and the indulgences allowed us at that season. We may go to maturer recollections in more advanced youth, and recal the sweetness of our first love, and our outset in life, with its keenly enjoyed pleasures and its vivid emotions. But all these are brought forward, as it were, only to remind us of their evanescence and our present incapacity of re-enjoying them ; for even if our rigid members and slowly-beating pulses were capable of a momentary liveliness and fluttering we cannot find the participators in our youthful happiness—we must exclaim,

“Where is the parent that look’d on my childhood,

And where is the bosom-friend dearer than all I”

and we might indeed-be answered by Echo—” Where!”

But the merry village-bells ring in the stranger year over the generations sleeping insensibly beneath them. To a thousand ears in the full flush of life, youth, and health, they waft sounds of gladness, and

” Another year, and then those sounds shall hail

The day again, and gladness fill the vale.”

“Another year” and again the ” jolly rebecks” will sound and the same merriment be repeated, for even the pleasures of life are but a string of such stale repetitions. Still let us make the most of them, and not live too much upon those of ” to-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,” but endeavour to employ and enjoy well the present time—let us be more anxious to be able to call truly our past years happy ones at their conclusion, as to hope at the beginning that each new one may turn out to be so. V.

SIMPLICITY.

From wealthy Ormus’ pearly bed

Let Beauty deck her braided hair,

And glittering rays of splendour shed

From every gem that nestles there ;

Reckless of Freedom’s sacred call

Let Afric bid her children toil,

And give to grace yon pageant hall

The rifled honours of her soil ;

But say, can such delights impart

A smile to Virtue’s chasten’d eye?

Ah, no ! she turns with aching heart

To thee, divine Simplicity !

With thee she loves at break of dawn

To climb the hill’s aspiring height,

With thee to rove th’ enspangled lawn

When gently swells the gale of Night ;

To seek the soft retiring dell

Where Spring its earliest visit paid,

Where Summer’s lingering beauties dwell,

And Autumn courts the sober shade ;

To gather thence the fairest gem

That graces Nature’s diadem,

As gladden’d by the kindly shower

She sits enthroned in Flora’s bower!

Then, farewell Wealth and Grandeur too !

Ah, what is all your pomp to me

Whilst mine the joys ye never knew—

The joys of loved Simplicity ?

Give me to cull with tender hand

The straggling sweets of Nature’s reign ;

1 ’11 covet not the fairy-wand

Which sways rich Fancy’s genii-train !

Give me the gentle heart to share

In all those joys, to Nature true—

The breast those straggling sweets to wear—

Then, Wealth farewell, and Grandeur too !

Source: New monthly magazine, 1822

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